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Videoconferencing Saves Time, Money <@VM>Working a New Way<@VM>A Closer Look<@VM>Minnesota Steps Up<@VM>Market Offerings<@VM>Technology Shapes Up
By Lynn Haber
Dozens of NASA scientists and engineers working on the Deep Space 1 project used videoconferencing technology to discuss and plan critical elements of the spacecraft mission scheduled for launch this month.
The Network Technology Development Group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is using its experience on this project to help the space agency deploy commercial videoconferencing solutions at NASA facilities nationwide to reduce project costs and production time.
More than 100 videoconferencing systems have already been deployed at NASA sites across the country, according to Edward Chow, technical group supervisor at the Network Technology Development Group. Most recently, the network group deployed two standards-based videoconferencing systems at a cost of $40,000 each, he says. One system is based in Arizona, the other in California.
These systems are part of an agencywide effort to develop a collaborative engineering environment that brings together its scattered engineering resources.
Those resources are located at NASA centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Johnson Space Center, Houston; Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.; Lewis Research Center, Cleveland; Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.; and NASA headquarters in Washington.
The virtual environments will help NASA improve communication, increase the quality of engineering and reduce program costs by millions of dollars, says Chow. NASA uses PictureTel Corp.'s Live100 and LiveLAN desktop products and Venue 2000 room systems.
Videoconferencing technology makes it possible for NASA to bring together scientists and engineers in a virtual cooperative engineering environment without requiring them to physically co-locate.
"Videoconferencing allows effective face-to-face discussions, interactions and communication," Chow says.
For instance, through videoconferencing, engineers preparing for the Deep Space 1 launch avoided weekly trips between Arizona, where the spacecraft was built, and the launch site, Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The technicians used PictureTel's Venue 2000 large-room systems for remote collaboration, including live video, shared computer files and smart boards.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is leading the Deep Space 1 project, saved more than 70 round-trip plane tickets between Phoenix and Florida thanks to the agency's videoconferencing systems.
Scheduled for blast off Oct. 25 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Deep Space 1 is a low-cost spacecraft designed to rendezvous with an asteroid and test new instrument and navigation technologies.
ASA is one of a growing number of government institutions where work habits are changing with the help of videoconferencing solutions. Applications driving videoconferencing in the government market include training, telemedicine and judicial sector uses.
The Navy uses videoconferencing for remote mechanical diagnostics and distance learning. The Army Medical Materiel Agency, which serves as the center for all medical supplies, equipment and related readiness support for Army operations worldwide, uses videoconferencing for maintenance of its equipment.
Overall, the worldwide videoconferencing market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 25 percent, jumping from $892 million in 1997 to $2.7 billion in 2002, according to Forward Concepts Inc., Tempe, Ariz.
Today, a small group system for three to five users at each site costs less than $5,000 per site. Just three years ago, a similar system including hardware and software would have cost four times as much, according to industry officials.
Not only has the price of videoconferencing products dropped precipitously over the last 10 years, the technology has become increasingly easier to use and greatly improved in quality.
In addition, the products are more reliable, different vendors' equipment will work together, and standards are being adopted to enable videoconferencing over local-area networks.
Vendors are targeting videoconferencing over the LAN to enable organizations to maximize use of their high-speed networks for enterprisewide delivery of videoconferencing.
The value of videoconferencing solutions is getting recognition at all government levels, with group meetings the most common type of application.
"With an increasingly dispersed work force, videoconferencing helps employees feel involved and stay focused. The technology also helps speed up decision making," says Kim Kasee, vice president of marketing for the video division at Polycom Inc., San Jose, Calif. Polycom's government customers include the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Until recently, vendors of room videoconferencing systems prevailed in the government and commercial markets.
But now desktop videoconferencing systems are gaining momentum.
Sales of desktop videoconferencing units are projected to grow by 70 percent per year between 1997 and 2001, according to Forward Concepts.
By contrast, the growth rate for group systems is forecast at 7 percent.
PC-focused players, such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., are driving desktop videoconferencing by making continued improvements to the base platform, which reduces the user's need to invest in specialized technology.
Hub and router companies, such as Cisco Systems Inc., also are tweaking the technology to enable organizations to push videoconferencing over local-area networks with assured quality.
New vendors, such as Polycom, VCon Telecommunications Ltd. of Dallas and Zydacron of Manchester, N.H., are entering the videoconferencing space, joining more established players such as PictureTel Corp., Andover, Mass.; Tandberg ASA, Montreal; and Vtel, Austin, Texas.
Vendors are teaming up with telecommunications providers such as AT&T Corp., MCI/Worldcom, Sprint and British Telecom to push their products.
Product vendors report users looking for business quality videoconferencing continue to buy traditional wide-area network technology, which incorporates the H.320 videoconferencing protocol, and use switched network ISDN and T1 circuits to ensure sufficient bandwidth.
PictureTel, for example, reports that 80 percent of the company's revenue is WAN-based.
"We expect that trend to continue for another one to two years" before the shift to LANs begins in force, says Craig Reichenbach, vice president federal region at PictureTel.
Government agencies using PictureTel products include all military branches, NASA and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture.
The videoconferencing movement also is taking hold at the state level.
For Minnesota, 1998 is a transition year as government officials there move into the world of dial-up videoconferencing and away from private networks.
"The digital switched world is where we see future growth," says Roger Root, visual communications program manager for Minnesota's Department of Human Services.
Moving to the dial-up network, Root expects to see benefits such as more affordable network service, more affordable equipment, user friendly hardware and easier technology deployment.
"More acceptance by videoconference users means more people will want to use the technology in their work," he says.
Root is now purchasing compact videoconferencing systems from Polycom - table-top units suitable for up to five users - and is using ISDN services purchased from public network providers.
This year, Root has purchased a mix of 13 Polycom ViewStation units for about $100,000.
Minnesota has used videoconferencing systems since 1992, when it deployed the technology to link eight state hospitals. Workers at these facilities use videoconferencing for employee training, group meetings and clinical consultations.
Root expects more employees to be able to use the technology as the state deploys less costly systems that run over ISDN, or integrated services digital network.
"We recently changed our videoconferencing strategy because of the availability of product under $10,000 and the availability of ISDN service," he says.
Up until this year, Minnesota primarily deployed large room systems, which cost $100,000 apiece and used the government's private network, which was costly, according to Root.
Root says one of the fastest growing applications for videoconferencing in the Department of Human Services is for judicial hearings, because it saves travel time for judges in the largely rural state.
Wide deployment of less expensive videoconference systems in the Department of Human Services also is allowing state social workers to monitor the progress of mental health patients in group homes and at county offices, he says.
Other state agencies in Minnesota deploying videoconferencing include the departments of Economic Security and Corrections, Root says.
Root is buying Polycom's ViewStation products, including ones that operate over ISDN lines at 128 Kbps and 512 Kbps.
Polycom moved into the market for lower cost, compact videoconferencing systems just a year ago. This new category offers units that are more powerful and easier to use, according to Kasee.
Kasee says Polycom's product is more like an appliance, less threatening to the user, better quality and lower cost.
PictureTel entered the compact market two years ago with a more portable, flexible, easy-to-install unit priced in the $7,000 to $10,000 range.
"This category of product now delivers the same quality that customers got in a larger room system priced at $50,000," says Reichenbach.
Unlike Polycom, PictureTel delivers enterprisewide videoconferencing solutions, including room and desktop systems.
Room systems deploy the most mature technology and still tend to be high-end, high-quality products that deliver video at 30 frames per second at T1 speeds with CD-quality audio.
In the desktop space, PictureTel offers both ISDN and LAN desktops for about $1,000 a seat, but Reichenbach says the market for desktop systems hasn't yet met projections.
Video quality has been the main drawback to date, he says.
Tandberg also offers a variety of room videoconferencing systems, including a compact system. None of its products are PC-based.
"We provide connectivity to a PC, but we don't believe that PCs are a solid enough platform for videoconferencing," says Tandberg executive Levy.
Vtel also offers a family of videoconferencing products beginning at $1,500 on up to $40,000 for a T1-capable, dual-monitor setup, according to Noreen Powell, federal channel marketing manager at Vtel. Vtel's federal customers include the departments of Energy and Justice and the Federal Reserve.
Other players in the videoconferencing market, such as VCon and Zydacron, offer desktop solutions.
Today, all basic videoconferencing systems include an encoder-decoder camera, control interface, speakers and a microphone.
Small roll-about systems typically use a single monitor, while large group systems use two or more.
There is a wide variety of peripherals available to support the needs of organizations using videoconferencing systems.
These peripherals include voice-activated cameras that can track, or follow, the speaker; and document cameras that can take a snapshot of an object or slide and transmit the still graphic to the remote site. Systems can be used with multiple cameras, microphones and monitors.
Vtel's Powell believes that the future of the videoconferencing market can be found in intelligent systems.
"Customers want userless interface environment features, like voice-activated tracking and automatic document capture and send," she says.
Industry officials agree if the technology isn't easy to install and use, the market will be turned off to videoconferencing.
Component enhancements, as well as making products smaller and more powerful, is the direction in which vendors are headed, hoping to attract not only the videoconferencing replacement market but new users, who up until now have sat on the sidelines.